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Government Surveillance

Court Rules Warrant Needed for Cell Location Data

Today, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that a warrant is required to obtain location information generated by the operation of a cell phone or other mobile device. The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) strongly supports this decision and firmly believes the Fourth Amendment should apply to stored cell phone location information.

“Of course the Fourth Amendment should apply to our location data. We take our cell phones with us everywhere and they can reveal the most private aspects of our lives — not only our daily routines, but also friendships, visits to medical clinics, and participation in protests. The court was right in ruling that law enforcement needs a warrant to access this deeply personal information,” said Greg Nojeim, CDT Director of the Freedom, Security, and Technology Project.

In the case, U.S. v. Graham, the government compelled the disclosure of 221 days of cell phone location information, which included 26,659 location data points for one defendant and 28,410 for another. The court stated that this was a search under the Fourth Amendment because of the extended period of time involved and personal nature of the information it revealed. The court also rejected the application of the Third Party Doctrine to cell site location information, stating that a person does have a reasonable expectation of privacy with regards to location data collected by their cell service providers.

Unless reversed by the full 4th Circuit, the decision sets up a clear split in the circuits about the extent of protection of cell phone location information. As a result, this issue will likely require resolution by the Supreme Court.